On My Favorite Picture of You, Guy Clark’s first studio album in four years, the reigning sage of Texas singer/songwriters remains allergic to pretense and vigilant against pathos, lest it siphon away the dignity and essential truth of his music. The title track, for instance, is a plainspoken paean to Susanna Clark, his wife and fellow songwriter for more than 40 years, who succumbed to cancer in 2012. It slides beside “Randall Knife” (about the death of his father) in Clark’s indelible musical autobiography.
He surrounds this obvious centerpiece with songs about a returning Iraq war veteran with PTSD (“Heroes”), Mexican immigrants left in a van to die (“El Coyote,” a kindred spirit to Woody Guthrie’s “Deportees”), and a heartbroken young woman hitchhiking out of town (“Rain In Durango”). The worn leather of Clark’s 71-year-old voice powerfully parses the understated lyrics, and one can’t help but marvel at the alliteration, assonance and seemingly effortless rhythm balled up in lines like, “Standing in the rain in Durango/ Right side of wrong/ Wrong side of gone.” Or the emotional weight of a couplet like, “A silver star and a pistol in the drawer/ The morphine just ain’t workin’ no more.”
Clark balances these riveting sagas with a formal waltz (“Cornmeal Waltz”), a somewhat skewed Appalachian murder ballad (“Death of Sis Draper”), and the self-skewering grumpy-old-man plaint (“Good Advice”). He also includes a pair of closing cautionary tales about living hard, “The High Price of Inspiration” and “I’ll Show Me.” Then again, the inspiration for this album, his favorite picture of Susanna, which he holds up on the cover, shows her angrily storming out of the house away from an inebriated Clark and Townes Van Zandt. Such is the price, and the beauty, of art that seeks to overlap so completely with life.